Protesters call to end the 'sham' of freedom day by allowing free speech in Gambia

Dozens of protestors took part in a demonstration outside the Gambian High Commission in London to call for free speech in Gambia on the eve of the country’s national holiday, Freedom Day (22 July).

The demonstration – organised by Amnesty International, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) – formed part of a series of events taking place around the world to highlight the sharp increase in recent years of media repression in the west African country, including the ongoing trial of seven journalists and the ‘disappearance’ of another, Ebrima B. Manneh.

Ebrima Manneh was arrested in July 2006 by plainclothes police officers. It is believed that he was arrested for attempting to publish a news article that criticised the Gambian government. Since his arrest the government and police officials have denied that he is in custody. Mr Manneh was paid special recognition at Amnesty International’s 2009 Media Awards in the category of Special Award for Journalism Under Threat.

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:

“It’s an absolute sham to celebrate Freedom Day in a country where journalists and others in the media are not allowed to freely express their opinions or views.

“We regularly hear of journalists and others who dare to express their views facing persecution and an array of abuses, including unlawful arrest, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and torture.

“Three years on after his arrest we still do not know what has become of Ebrima Manneh.

“If the President really wants to celebrate Freedom Day this year, he should immediately call for the release of Ebrima Manneh, urge the authorities to stop harassing journalists and activists across Gambia and to drop all legal charges against them.”

Since 1994, at least 27 journalists have left Gambia, more than half of them in the last two years, and at least ten of them have been granted asylum in other countries.

One of the ways in which the government in Gambia stifles political and social dissent is through restricting freedom of expression. Journalists are detained and unlawfully arrested if suspected of providing information to news sources or for writing stories that are unfavourable to the authorities. Newspapers and news websites have been closed down or hacked into. Journalists and members of the opposition are frequently harassed, threatened, and unlawfully killed.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

“Freedom of speech and freedom of association are fundamental human rights, and journalists who are also trade unionists are often targeted twice over by repressive regimes.

“I hope that the Gambian Government will respond to worldwide protests by recognising that a free press and a free trade union movement are the hallmarks of democracy, and vital for development.”

The seven journalists currently on trial are charged with sedition (or incitement to public disorder) after criticising President Yahya Jammeh for remarks that bluntly refuted government involvement in the unsolved 2004 murder of Deydra Hydara, former editor of The Point newspaper.

Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary said:

“Our colleagues in the Gambia Press Union need our support more than ever, with journalists in court on the eve of Gambia's Freedom Day facing charges of sedition, just because they have spoken out.

“Media workers in the country have disappeared, been killed in mysterious circumstances and arrested. How can the government claim to celebrate freedom when the press continues to face such a repressive regime?

“The Gambian authorities must recognise that a free media plays a crucial role in a society with respect for human rights. These threats to journalists and journalism must be lifted.”

At the demonstration, representatives from Amnesty International, the TUC and NUJ handed into the Gambian High Commission a letter and photo album compiled by activists from around the world who asked the question ‘Where is Ebrima?’. The images can be seen on www.whereisebrima.org .

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